Virtual, web-based education isn’t new. We began building online learning communities of our own to enable working professionals to learn, grow and foster confidence in 2008.
Which Resource Would Provide The Most Reliable Facts On The Benefits Of Online Learning?
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In the typical professional context, a detailed review of literature is an effective and reliable way to supplement the knowledge of a group. In online learning, however, the relative extent of resources available for peer-to-peer reviews is another matter, with exceptions.
At a recent event in Edinburgh sponsored by the Science Media Centre, Stephen Worton, professor of data mining and sustainability at Durham University, was asked to comment on this issue. He told me: “Whilst online courses are rapidly proliferating on the web and educators are bringing new material online, there is not a constant stream of peer-reviewed peer-reviewed material from which to work, particularly on skills and knowledge.”
Online courses offer the prospect of pushing forward, but can also at best allow for mass deployments without much independent quality control.
One service that helps in this area is YoungThink.com, a content-scraping site that takes content from several online learning programmes on a wide range of topics and offers a searchable keyword index to do the reviews.
Alongside the content scraping, it also provides database management services to help sites with their content management systems.
You can currently filter content by: 1) relevance to graduate skills; 2) content quality; 3) engagement level; 4) language and 5) number of reviews. It also highlights material from which to extract learnings and features content recommendations.
Some people in the industry and on websites such as these argue that the negative viewpoint is often outweighed by positive opinions. In this view, there is a diminishing scarcity of quality, engaging material and that we are moving away from speaking in terms of resources scarcity to a more collaborative model of online learning.
Online learning is also producing some good-quality learning materials in terms of design and production, as well as improved production standards.
However, the question of how well that content is quality-checked and publicly reviewed – both positively and negatively – is pressing.
Jo Hoopes, professor of political communication at the University of Texas at Austin, told me of the negative aspects of online learning. “Never say no to the ability to express oneself,” she said. “However, I am concerned with the decrease in humanised and emotion-filled experiences.”
Wherever there is a more personal level of engagement between tutor and student, she feels there is greater willingness to share information, better receptivity to ambiguity and greater openness to criticism. However, such content can be better managed and monitored, and evidence of improvement of learning outcomes has not been good.
Another professor in her area of research told me that course content can go too deep for students and, when there is too much scope to engage in discussions, they will focus on irrelevant factors and get bogged down.
Similar criticisms are made about e-learning by others in different academic fields.
“At the very least, professors and their graduate assistants need to take responsibility for not designing courses that go in too far, and focusing on the strengths of the material rather than just having students talk at each other,” said Shoshana Tomlinson, an expert in the field of digital distribution and learning in learning research and policy at Penn State University.
Tomlinson told me: “On my students’ multiple-choice tests, for example, I find it odd that some questions completely ignore the context of the discussion and require everyone to answer on the spot, which doesn’t do the students any favours as it makes it difficult to get at important knowledge. It could also have an added disadvantage of making you wait until the end of the course to know the answer, which could encourage students to say yes to every exam.”